WESTWOOD— On Tuesday, September 11, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office announced that criminal charges against UCLA professor Patrick Harran were dismissed in the death of a laboratory assistant during a fire. On December 29, 2008, a lab accident led to the death of 23-year-old Sheri Sangji, who died as a result of a plastic syringe breaking down in her hands while she was transferring t-butyl lithium. The syringe discharged a chemical compound that ignites when exposed to oxygen which caused her synthetic sweater to catch fire. Complications from the second and third degree burns led to her death two weeks later.
UCLA took responsibility for the state of the laboratory where the accident occurred. Harran, her supervisor, was charged along with the regents on three counts of willfully breaching occupational health and safety requirements. In 2014, in a statement to the court, Harran said that he was “ultimately responsible for the safety of personnel in my laboratory.”
Signaling their support for Harran, UCLA stated that it was Sangji’s choice not to wear the lab coat that could have protected her from the accident. UCLA and Harran’s lawyer, Thomas O’Brien said, “While we all wish this terrible tragedy had not occurred, there is simply no reasonable explanation for this criminal prosecution-and it’s been flawed from the start.”
Harran’s lawyers later stated that he did not break any laws because it was UCLA that was Sangji’s employer, not Harran.
The felony charges were dropped in 2012 after University of California regents promised to increase safety training and create an environmental law scholarship in the victim’s name. A deferred-prosecution agreement was reached in 2014, requiring Harran to volunteer for 800 hours, pay $10,000 to the Grossman Burn Center, and develop and teach a course for organic chemistry to prepare high school students for organic chemistry at the collegiate level. He also spoke with incoming students about the importance of laboratory safety.
The agreement was due to end next June, but Judge George Lomeli of the Los Angeles Supreme Court ruled on Thursday, September 13 that Harran fulfilled the terms and dismissed the case against him nine months earlier. While Sangji’s family disapproves of the early dismissal, Harran continues to teach at UCLA.